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USMMA leader details responses to sexual assault for panel in D.C.

The entrance to the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy

The entrance to the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

WASHINGTON — The superintendent of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, in extensive public remarks Monday, outlined for congressional overseers what the Kings Point school is doing to pursue allegations of sexual assault and sexual harassment, give support to those who bring accusations of abuse, and change the campus culture.

Rear Adm. James A. Helis did not discuss any specific case of sexual-misconduct allegations during the 40-plus minutes he spoke about the issues to the USMMA Board of Visitors at its meeting in the U.S. Capitol Visitors Center.

“The safety, the well-being of the midshipmen, that they are educated, trained and live in a safe and secure environment, remains our number one priority,” Helis told the panel, which includes members of Congress, military officers and academy alumni.

“Over the last year, we have made what we believe are significant efforts to continue to attack the problem of sexual assault, both on campus and on the Sea Year environment,” he said, referring to the signature training program during which midshipmen serve on federal and commercial vessels around the world.

The academy has expanded its office for sexual assault prevention response, to work with students who report such incidents, from one to four staff positions, Helis said. In addition, five faculty members have been trained to serve as victim advocates, and USMMA will hire an attorney to be a victim’s adviser when sexual-misconduct cases are being investigated and adjudicated.

Students also are being offered more ways to report sexual assault and harassment, including a 24-hour hotline and devices to use during the Sea Year.

After the meeting, Helis declined an interview request.

Reps. Peter King (R-Seaford), the board’s immediate past chairman, and Thomas Suozzi (D-Glen Cove), whose district includes the academy, said they could not attend Monday’s meeting because of other engagements.

The Kings Point school, one of five federal service academies, has struggled to effectively address sexual assault and sexual harassment for years. In 2016, reports of sexual misconduct forced the temporary suspension of the Sea Year.

In January 2017, Newsday reported that sexual assault and sexual harassment, bullying and coercion had persisted at USMMA for nearly a decade, despite the government’s own records of complaints and corrective efforts.

Current and former students, in interviews, spoke of a campus culture in which they felt discouraged about speaking up and the fear of being ostracized if they did.

Last June, a federal investigation into allegations of sexual assault by members of the USMMA men’s soccer team on a freshman player prompted Helis to place seven seniors on deferred graduate status, barring them from the 2017 commencement, and to suspend the entire NCAA Division III soccer program.

Those seven midshipmen sued Helis, the academy, the U.S. Transportation Department and the U.S. Maritime Administration in federal court, alleging their constitutional right to due process had been violated. Ultimately, they received their diplomas and other commissioning documents after individual, closed administrative hearings at the academy.

Last week, a federal judge in the Eastern District in Central Islip dismissed that lawsuit after all parties stipulated to an agreement.

In a separate action stemming from that case, the former freshman player who alleges he was the victim of abuse and bullying in fall 2016 has put the U.S. DOT and the Maritime Administration on notice that he intends to pursue a legal claim for $5 million for personal injuries.

The claim, filed under the Federal Tort Claims Act, includes part of a “restricted report” that the midshipman submitted to the academy in which he describes being physically and sexually assaulted on a team bus on Sept. 2, 2016. That student left the school in late October 2016.

At Monday’s meeting, Board of Visitors members asked about steps being taken to investigate abuse allegations and help victims, with one senator pointing to staffers’ responsibility to address any hazing incidents.

“I realize these are only allegations, and there are two sides to every story, but it does occur to me that it seems plausible that these outrageous alleged acts might in another era have been considered horseplay that was acceptable among young adults,” Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) told Helis. “In this day and age, the coaching staff should have known, if it did in fact happen, that they were completely inappropriate.”

King, who said he had to attend a hearing Monday on Staten Island about security funding for the region, said the Board of Visitors should inquire how the academy investigated the allegations of misconduct regarding the soccer team.

“First of all, we need to find out from the Merchant Marine Academy what was done” to hear the accusations and weigh the evidence, King said. “These allegations could be true, partly true, you don’t know . . . It’s important to get all sides on this.”

Suozzi, in a statement, said the meetings “need to be better coordinated” so that other board members have a chance to participate. About half of the 17-member board missed Monday’s discussion.

“While the USMMA has taken some steps forward in rebuilding its culture to embrace transparency and accountability, there continue to be situations that trouble me and I expect there will be more stringent oversight,” Suozzi said in the statement.

Thomas Grasso, the New Jersey-based lawyer for the former freshman player who filed the personal-injury claim, attended Monday’s meeting. Grasso sent a letter last week to the U.S. DOT and to members of the Board of Visitors, asking the panel to fully investigate his client’s allegations.

The four-page letter, which Grasso also shared with Newsday, details his client’s account of his experiences on the soccer team as part of a “hazing culture” of bullying, taunts and insulting comments.

Grasso had sought permission to intervene in the federal case on behalf of his client before it was dismissed. His request was denied by U.S. District Court Judge Joanna Seybert.

After the meeting, Grasso said the reforms look promising, but need to be sustained to bring about “a culture change” at the academy. Those changes, he added, don’t address damage that already was done to victims of sexual abuse.

“Clearly, they are coming around. I certainly appreciate all the work and the efforts and focus that are now being turned to it, but what happened to my client is part of the reason why they are making the changes that they are,” Grasso said. “Now you have ‘How do you go forward?’ which is a lot of what we heard today. But we really do need to deal with the damage of the past.”

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